Episode 59: Big Ben

The clock tower of the houses of parliament is not only an icon for London but for the UK. It’s a symbol for democracy and evokes a sense of national pride. It is also one of the Top 5 selfie spots in the world, along with London Bridge, Paris’s Eiffel Tower and Rome’s Coliseum.

To accompany this podcast I have put together a colouring-in sheet for our younger listeners with some of the key facts about Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower. See below.


Show Notes:

Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to London Guided Walks London History podcast. In the coming episodes, we will be sharing our love and passion for London, its people, places and history in an espresso shot with a splash of personality. For those of you who don’t know me, I am Hazel Baker, founder of London Guided Walks, providing guided walks and private tours to Londoners and visitors alike. 

The clock tower of the houses of parliament is not only an icon for London but for the UK. It’s a symbol for democracy and evokes a sense of national pride. It is also one of the Top 5 selfie spots in the world, along with London Bridge, Paris’s Eiffel Tower and Rome’s Coliseum.

To accompany this podcast I have put together a colouring-in sheet for our younger listeners with some of the key facts about Big Ben and the Elizabeth Tower.

There are two towers on the Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament. Today, we’re going to be focusing on the Elizabeth Tower, which is right by Westminster bridge. It’s more affectionately known as Big Ben. The Elizabeth Tower is even marked his Big Ben on Google maps, dear. Oh dear. But in fact, Big Ben is the nickname for the largest bell the Elizabeth Tower contains. And that’s the one you hear when the hour is struck, the smaller four bells are used to chime every quarter of an hour. 

The tower had originally been called the clock tower. It was constructed in the 19th century and its contents represent the best of technology and design in Victorian Britain. However, in 2012 to mark Her Majesty’s diamond Jubilee, they renamed it the Elizabeth Tower

And that includes a clock of unprecedented accuracy, which works as well today, as it would have done over 150 years ago, when it was first built. It’s the most accurate turret clock in the world. 

The Elizabeth Tower isn’t the first clock tower at the Palace of Westminster. There’s been one in situ for over 800 years.

The first public clock at the palace of Westminster was built between the years 1288-1292. It is said to have been the first in the country to have hands, even though it’s been suggested that it had a single hour hand. 

And where did the money come from for such a building project? Well, it came from a fine.

Sir Ralph de Hengham was The Chief Justice, (1235 – 1311) and it’s believed that he angered King Edward I by altering a court record in order to reduce the amount of a fine that had been imposed on a poor man. The Chief Justice was then fined and it’s said that this fine was used to pay for the construction of a clock tower with a bell, in the palace buildings where the law courts were housed. The bell became affectionately known as Great Tom of Westminster. 

During the Civil War (1642 – 1649) this medieval clock tower was used by the royalists for refuge when they realised they were losing the battle in New Palace Yard. When the royalist soldiers ran out of ammunition they took the stones from the tower and pieces of the clock mechanism and threw them down upon the attackers.

But even when peace had been restored and the damage had been repaired, the clock was said to never quite work so well afterwards. For one reason or another, the clock fell into disrepair and King William III in 1698 gave it to St. Margaret’s church, which is on the other side of parliament square, next to Westminster Abbey.

By 1707, the tower itself had been demolished and the large bell Great Tom of Westminster was sold to St. Paul’s Cathedral for a whopping £385, 17 shillings and sixpence, which is about 30,000 pounds in today’s money. On the way to St. Paul’s Cathedral the bell was dropped and cracked. It was recast in Whitechapel Foundry in 1716 and it still strikes the hours of St. Paul’s to this day. When Big Ben has been out of action it is once again, up to Great Tom to perform its original duty.

On the night of the 16th of October, 1834, most of the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire. The Great Westminster Hall was saved, but almost everything else had to be rebuilt. A competition was opened with the requirement that the proposed design be of either gothic or Elizabethan in style.

It was the celebrated architect, Charles Barry, who won a competition, design the new houses of parliament and his final plans included a clock tower. He was born in Bridge Street, opposite the future site of the Clock Tower. Other works you might know of Barry include Highclere Castle, the stately home of the Grantham family in Downton Abbey, The Reform Club, a private members club on Pall Mall, and the interior of Lancaster House, used in the film The King’s Speech and Netflix’s The Crown. His style, however, was the Italian architecture. His assistant was the 23 year old Augustus Pugin. Pugin was another Londoner, having been born in Keppel Street in Bloomsbury. He was obsessed with all things Gothic. You may know Pugin’s work, he created Alton Towers in Alton Staffordshire, if you’ve been to Alton Towers amusement park then you’ve been there or perhaps you know the famous twisted spire of the parish church of Chesterfield. It would be Pugin’s design that was to become reality. 


Elizabeth Tower. Credit_ Martin Lucy, Getty Images


Original designs show that the clock tower hadn’t originally been part of Barry’s submission but was added on during the design process. That meant a clock also had to be designed.

It was astronomer George Airy who was appointed referee of the competition for the new clock tower. Industrialisation and advances in technology and communications had driven huge developments in timekeeping and areas, specifications that he designed for the clock were extremely demanding.

It was to be the biggest and most accurate ever created. It was to push the limits of technology and become the best that British science could create. He required that the accuracy should be within one second, every hour. This was something that many, a clockmaker believed was absolutely impossible. And not only that, another requirement was an extraordinary feat of engineering to cast and install the largest Bell in Britain.

An amateur horologist Edmund Denison designed the great clock and the famous clock maker, Edward Dent constructed it. If you have seen the huge clock in St Pancras International, above Paul Days’ sculpture The Meeting Place then you have seen another example of Dent’s work. 

Were they able to make this great clock accurate to within one second? Yes, indeed. Weights including pre decimal pennies sit on a shelf on the pendulum rod adding, moving these weights on the pendulum, then regulates the clock. Dent died before completing the project, and it was subsequently finished by his son, Frederick Dent. The clock and bell were installed together in 1859.

Overall, the pendulum is 4.4 meters long that’s 14.4 feet and swings every 2 seconds. Denison invented the double three leggy gravity escapement, which is absolutely crucial to the clock’s accuracy. So it’s a fine balance; adding an old penny will cause the clock to gain two fifths of a second in 24 hours, removing one would do the opposite. The clock mechanism itself weighs about five tons.

Big Ben the bell measures at a diameter of 2.7 meters. That’s 8.85 feet. Its height, however, is only 2.2 meters, which is 7.2 feet. Which means that Big Ben the bell is fatter than it is high. It weighs 13.7 tons and the hammer used to strike the bell is 200 kilos. You might be surprised to know that Big Ben, the bell, wasn’t the first bell to be commissioned for this new tower.

The first bell had been cast in 1856 at Stockton-on-Tees, and it was brought to London by the new-fangled railway and also by sea. But during tests in New Palace Yard, a fatal crack appeared. The bell was broken up and a second bell was cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. This was the bell that was brought to New Inn Yard by 16 white horses before being hauled up sideways up a 50 ft+ shaft into the new clock tower.

Almost 16 years after the tower’s first stone had been laid the great Big Ben bell rang out across London for the very first time. Pugin, however, wasn’t around to see the tower completed and died at home in Ramsgate aged just 40 years old, four years before the project was completed. He wrote: “I never worked so hard in my life [as] for Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower & it is beautiful & I am the whole machinery of the clock.” 

He also writes that Barry omitted to give him any credit for his huge contribution to the design of the new Houses of Parliament. In 1867, after the deaths of both Pugin and Barry, Pugin’s son Edward published a pamphlet, Who Was the Art Architect of the Houses of Parliament, a statement of facts, in which he asserted that his father was the “true” architect of the building, and not Barry.


Elizabeth Tower with black hands. Credit_ pallinchakjr, Getty Images


How did big Ben get its name? 

There had been suggestions that the bell be called Victoria after queen Victoria or Saint Stephen, patron saint of the medieval palace of Westminster chapel.

It was however, on the 22nd of October, 1856, where the times newspaper reported that our King of bells would be named Big Ben in honour of Sir Benjamin Hall. So Benjamin Hall was the first commissioner of works and oversaw the latter part of the rebuilding of the houses of parliament. After the fire, he was a tall and thin man.

He was over six feet and also had the affection and nickname of Big Ben. It’s believed that the bell has also been inscribed with his name. However, I haven’t seen that. I have heard that big Ben came from the heavyweight boxing champion, Benjamin Caunt, whose nickname big Ben was given to large objects, but we don’t have any proof.

The total of five bells create the Westminster Chimes. Big Ben is the note E and then the full quarter bells, a G sharp F sharp, A and B

The chimes are set to the following verse all through this hour. Lord be my guide and by it, I power, no foot shall slide. And if you are a brownie like me, then you might know these words instead. Oh Lord our God by children call, grant us thy peace and bless us all. And that was something that we sang at the end of every meeting.

And for those who are interested, I was a Gnome. 

The tower and the bells may be a defining icon of London and the UK now, but they hadn’t always been popular. Sir John Packington MP had wanted that horrible tolling to stop. And another MP Thomas Hanky had asked “whether there was any chance of the bell sounding more like ordinary bells. At present it inflicted great annoyance upon the public and the House”. Not surprising really as the bells could be heard for up to 5 miles away. After the great bell cracked, the Earl of Derby had commented that he “in common with all the inhabitants of that part of London in which he lived rejoiced”. 

However, the clock tower became increasingly popular with the public, they opened it and up tours on Saturday afternoons in the late 19th century.

Remember Edward Dent, the man who had made the clock? Well, his company at the turn of the 20th century published postcards featuring Big Ben, which made the tar ever more famous. Big band featured in the service held to commemorate the end of the first world war and armistice day and its fame spread further on new years, 1923, BBC first broadcast big ban show striking the hour to welcome in the new year.


It marks the start of what is now a familiar sound and homes across the whole country. It wasn’t until another nine years when big ban was heard globally, when the BBC empire service, which predates BBC world service, first broadcast its chimes. Big bang continued to ring all through the second world war.

It wasn’t until 2012. When the clock tower was renamed to the Elizabeth tower to celebrate the diamond Jubilee of her majesty queen Elizabeth, the second.

If you look at the clock tower now, you’ll see that it’s covered in scaffolding. Essential maintenance is being carried with the aim being to repair and conserve the tower, upgrade facilities as necessary and to ensure its integrity for future generations. 

There have been some surprising finds during the refurbishment including finding a time capsule “Deposited 16 June 1956 by A W Haltersby Esq Resident Engineer 1927-1956. And it is within that time capsule, along with adverts and newspaper cuttings there was evidence of an even earlier time capsule from 1903. How marvellous.

Another surprising find was some work done at Lincoln University which shows the original Barry & Pugin design had Prussian Blue instead of the black clock ironworks. In fact they were able to demonstrate that the clock works; the arms and numbers had been blue until the 1930s. If you look up at the tower now you will see this fantastic blue and gold. I have also included an image in the show notes.

Repair work had been done on the tower in the 1950s. The final costs were £66,000, £29k more than originally budgeted.

Elizabeth Tower down Whitehall. Credit_ cineman, Getty Images

Today’s refurbishment was originally expected to be finished this year, but was held up due to the pandemic and is due for completion in early 2022. So far, the costs of the project have already spiralled to at least £80m, surpassing the original budget of £29m. It just goes to show you that some things never change. 

Let’s hope with all the amazing work they have been doing ensures that the Elizabeth Tower and its unique set of bells remain a symbol for the British people for another 160 years. 

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